Bringing the "World" to the Bluegrass

By Mary C. Smith

Georgetown College is turning public radio on its ear in a big way. What started out as an upgrade of the college's tiny 15,000 watt radio station - to a 50,000 watt powerhouse with a blues-oriented NPR format - has turned into what is not only the area's first AAA station, WVRG 89.9 FM, but also a national AAA network, World Radio, plus a national news network.

The move was originally designed to enhance the college's communications department and to provide more extensive interdisciplinary opportunities It was initiated by Dr. Bill Gillespie, who is currently the General Manager of the entire operation. Tom Martin, a Morehead native with an illustrious national broadcasting career, was brought in to develop the station, oversee the renovation of the facilities, and direct programming at both the station and the network.

Several factors, not the least of which was the high cost of NPR and PRI programming, almost killed the project before it got off the ground.

"We realized that we could bring in highly qualified professionals for close to the cost of purchasing the programming [from NPR]," Martin said in a recent interview -- and so they did. A prestigious staff has been assembled, drawn extensively from Martins' former colleagues at commercial networks, and that staff is bringing top-notch, eclectic programming to not only the Georgetown-Lexington area, but also to affiliates across the country.

The affiliate list is growing rapidly, lured by the low ($375) annual access fee, and the high quality of offerings, including the "Little Feat Hour," "Acoustic Cafe," "Bone Connection" and several WRVG-based shows, including "Early World" with Sam Litzinger, Martin's own "Rhythm "and "America Overnight," featuring Max Cooper. Another important aspect of the new network is the willingness to play the music of unsigned artists and bands who "aren't getting a nod" from other public stations. Original music is being sandwiched between the likes of Howlin' Wolf, Marsha Ball, Tower of Power, Big Bad VooDoo Daddy, Buckwheat Zydeco, the Beatles or the Stones. This has to be one of the most varied musical formats you'll find on a 50,000 watt channel.

The primary music director, Laura Shine, formerly heard on Louisville's WFPK, is not restricted to playlists, label pressure or any influences beyond her own innate feel for the music. Each program host is free to "play their own stuff" as well, and the mix is a refreshing change from the ratings-driven monotony flooding the airwaves on other stations. Additions to the line-up are under development, including a show hosted by the legendary Duke Robillard, and live, in-house performances by local and touring bands. Little Feat will stop by later this month when they come to Coyote's, and Taj Mahal is planning a visit later this summer.

Listen for a World Radio affiliate coming to Louisville in the near future -- public radio has been reinvented.